An Interview With a Professional Basketball Player Stuck in Italy During the Coronavirus Outbreak

“My team is supposed to have practice tomorrow, and I don’t know if that’s legal or what.”

Mitchell lays the ball into the hoop (or grabs a rebound) as other players look on below him. The stadium seats behind the hoop are empty.
Akil Mitchell of Pallacanestro Trieste during a game between AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan and Pallacanestro Trieste at the Allianz Cloud PalaLido in Milan on Oct. 6, 2019.
Giuseppe Cottini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The new coronavirus outbreak has turned life in Italy upside-down, and on Monday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called for a complete lockdown throughout the country. Sports teams had been playing in empty stadiums, but leagues are now postponing or canceling games outright in response to the virus’s rapid spread. Former University of Virginia basketball player Akil Mitchell plays professionally for Lega Basket Serie A’s Pallacanestro Trieste in northeast* Italy, and I spoke with him over the phone to discuss the confusion and uncertainty surrounding his life as an athlete in the midst of an epidemic. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nick Greene: How long have you been in Italy?

Akil Mitchell: This is my first season. I got here in September. I’m supposed to be here through May—that’s when the season is finished—but now it’s not looking likely.

You had a game on Saturday, which was the day before the league began postponing games, right?

Yes. Normally our games are Sunday. For whatever reason we were scheduled to have our game scheduled Saturday. As soon as we got back to the locker room, we got word that the entire country was now shut down or something like that. I remember getting to the locker room and saying, “Oh, shit, we don’t know what’s going to happen from here on out.”

The game on Saturday was behind closed doors. Was that your first game without fans present?

We had a bye week that would have coincided with the first week without fans. That was our first game without fans.

What’s that like? Was it eerie?

A little bit. It’s just different. You’re so used to competing with people in the arena. It’s kind of like practice. I don’t know if eerie is the word—quiet, for sure.

Do you know roughly how many people were in the arena, total?

Probably about 50 people total. Not a lot of people but enough where you can recognize faces and say, “OK, they kind of have to be here.”

Did you find it more difficult to play without fans?

I actually didn’t play. I got in trouble—call it trouble, whatever you want—I kind of bumped elbows with my team over coming back into the country. I was in Panama. I’m Panamanian; I play for the national team there. We had games over the FIBA window. When I was supposed to be coming back to Italy was when [the] coronavirus was starting to take off. It, like, doubled to almost 500 cases at that point, within two days. I was calling my team and telling them that I don’t want to come back to this. If I come back and the country is quarantined, then we’re all going to have a shitshow on our hands, basically. They ended up talking me into coming back, and I was suspended for this first game.

But to answer your question, it helped us. We ended up getting a big win.

You were suspended because you had a disagreement about coming back to Italy?

That wasn’t really made clear. I mean, I started every game this season. It was strange for me to be on the bench, but I was told not to suit up, and that was that.

Before the bye week, did you have a sense that the virus was spreading and that things were getting bad?

I was scheduled to be back in Italy on the 26th of February. I left for Panama on the 17th. That weekend, going into the 22nd, 23rd, is kind of when the news broke. Cases were increasing rapidly, and that was when I made the decision that I wanted to give it a few days before coming back to Italy. I didn’t know anything going into the weekend of the 22nd. I was completely prepared to come back, business as usual. It has taken off since then. In two weeks we’re already at more than 8,000 cases.

Because of the complete shutdown, are you stuck in your apartment right now?

I don’t know if you can hear it, but there’s a prison about a block away from me. The inmates are going crazy. I thought there was like a parade or something. I didn’t know what was happening, so I took my dog for a walk. I got on the sidewalk with lots of different people, but as I pulled out my phone to record, two police officers kind of ran up on me and told me I had to go home.

Businesses are closed, but there’s still a lot of commotion on the street.

What are you doing for food and stuff?

I just hit the grocery store during the day and grab whatever I need. During the day it seems like life is pretty normal, which I guess is probably part of the problem.

Have you heard from the league or your team about what their plans are?

No. That’s probably the most frustrating part. There are already players around the league who have decided to leave. My team is supposed to have practice tomorrow, and I don’t know if that’s legal or what. Every team is behaving on its own. Every time we get a news notification, it’s overridden by the government. A few days ago, we were prepared to play in a week. The country’s shut down until April 3, but we were supposed to have a game on March 22. We were like, OK, we’re going to start practicing and preparing for this game. An hour later we get a notification saying that all games and everything is shut down until April 3. Nobody really knows what’s going on.

Are you still getting paid during the stoppage?

We don’t know. I would have left two days ago had I known what my situation with my contract would be. At least, if I’m not getting paid, then I need to go play somewhere else. None of that has been expressed. I think it’s because they’re still holding out hope that there may be games, but we don’t know anything. I don’t know if I’m getting paid, if the league will stop. Nobody’s really made a call on anything yet. [Editor’s note: As Mitchell alluded to above, Conte announced Monday that all sports in the country were canceled as of Tuesday, until April 3.]

There also is some uncertainty here with the NBA. What are your thoughts on that? Should they play in empty stadiums or just postpone the games?

I actually was OK with there being no fans. At least you can better ensure the players’ health and safety and keep large gatherings of people from congregating. It seems like a massive step, but it’s not that big of a deal. If you get to a point where it’s like Italy now, where it’s grown exponentially and there’s really no control, then OK, cancel games.

I saw a quote from LeBron James, who said that he wouldn’t play if they didn’t let fans in. [Ed. note: On Tuesday afternoon, the Los Angeles Times reported that James has changed his mind.]

I did see that. It’s weird [playing in an empty arena], but unless you want to get to a point where you cancel games altogether, I don’t see the point in postponing. This is going to be an issue for a while. It’s not like this just goes away in a week or two.

Have you seen your teammates and coaching staff since the last game?

I went to lunch with two of my teammates a couple of days ago. I think that was Sunday. But we haven’t seen anybody face to face, and honestly I think that’s the best option right now. I know a few guys have been feeling sick. Other guys are afraid that they’ve maybe been in contact with someone who has tested positive.

Have you been able to get a workout in at all? Or are you just staying at home?

Pretty much just staying at home. Me and my dog—we’re kind of going crazy in here.

If you did leave, would you go to the States or Panama?

I’d come back to the States. My family’s in the States.

Are they worried?

Very. Very worried. Of course they want to make sure that I do everything I can to make sure I don’t breach the contract or step on anybody’s toes, but at the same time, at some point your health and safety, especially in a foreign country, comes first.

Correction, March 10, 2020: This post originally misstated that Trieste is in northwest Italy. It is in the northeast.

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